May 8, 2007

With democracy, you can't have it all

The next great battle for the future of the Middle East is taking place in the halls of a legislative body. This should be good news. It’s not.

This Sunday, the Turkish parliament failed to elect a president for the second time in as many weeks—despite the fact that the governing “Justice and Development,” Adalet ve Kalkinma (AK), party has the two-thirds majority required to do so. Why? Because the opposition, unable to muster enough support to defeat AK’s Abdullah Gul, boycotted the vote. Without a quorum, Gul’s near-certain victory was invalidated, and Turkey might now need to wait until after the next general election to pick a president. AK can’t lose, but its opponents are making sure it can’t win, either.

The AK party is the latest in a long line of Turkish-Islamist–rooted political coalitions to be railroaded out of the political process. Many are suspicious that its moderate image is window dressing, and that it will attempt to dismantle the nation’s strict mosque-state separation the moment it can hold the presidency. The opposition means to keep that from happening. Whereas in the past it has had the champions of political Islam proscribed or relied on violent coups to keep them out of power, it is now hijacking the vote itself.

It’s a pyrrhic victory for the secularists—not just because the Islamists will probably win in the end, but because they are discrediting the very system they appear to be defending. Their inability to accept that the majority of Turks do not share their fears about Muslim influence on government and let the natural consequence follow could have wide implications for Middle Eastern democracy, none of them positive.

Among the many reasons that Turkey is important on the world stage is its status as the only nation with a functioning democracy and a majority-Muslim population. Given that Muslim democracy is currently a stated international priority for the world’s most powerful country, there are a number of eyes on Ankara just now. What the Turks have accomplished or have failed at is seen as signaling the range of possibility and limits for that system. After all, if the star students of Muslim democracy can’t pass the test, what hope does anyone else have?

The message that the marginalization of the majority in Turkey sends is that there is no place in democracy for Islam. More to the point, the message is that it is so important to keep Islam out of democracy that one can abandon central tenets of the system to do so. None daresay “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

That is a catastrophic outcome for those who wish to win the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners. If democracy doesn’t include Islam, why should practicing Muslims participate in democracy? If the advocates of democracy don’t feel the need to abide by their own rules when such rules don’t benefit them, why should anyone else be bound by them?

The principle behind democracy is that the people vote for the candidate whose positions they think will serve them best. The experience of Middle Easterners has been that democratic states do not actually allow them to follow through with this principle when the candidates in question hold certain views. For years, the United States has supported dictators who use the bugbear of Islamic fundamentalism to justify brutal repression. We must give them reason to be less skeptical about the effectiveness of the system. Keeping Gul from his rightly earned office will have exactly the opposite effect.

Knee-jerk fears of kaffiyeh-wearing fanatics in power aside, the messy truth is that Middle Easterners have a widespread and deep-seated desire for Islam to play a role in how they are governed. Those who want stable, democratic governments to reign over the region are going to have to accept that substantive democracy there may not, now or ever, permit air-tight separation of religion and civil government.

George Orwell once commented that “Liberty…means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Likewise, democracy means that if the voters don’t like your candidate, your candidate doesn’t get to hold office, without exception. Members of the Turkish opposition need to accept that using the procedures of democracy to deny its substance helps no one, including themselves.

The world will be safer once political Islam has found its place as a purely political movement, much as the AK party has attempted to do in Turkey. What is happening in Ankara is making it more difficult for that to take place. The opposition has made its point—it will not permit a less secular Turkey. For the good of the region, it must declare victory and go home.